75 of 78 people found the following review helpful
on January 24, 2001
Through the entertaining story of the rise and fall of a Spokane garage band, Sherman Alexie manages to pack the complexities and frustrations of contemporary Native American Indian life on and off the Reservation. Though his narrative is full of droll wit, his themes are profound. He speaks of the poverty, alcoholism and broken family structure that haunt reservations, of the meanness of HUD housing, surplus food and the local police. As for co-existence with whites: any white left after reading this who thinks white culture understands and treats Indians better these days is as dense as they come. The author explores how outside culture bids for the Indian soul. There is an identity crisis for sure, a rattling sense of purposelessness. Infusing the story with mythic components that extend beyond specific ethnic borders, the author expresses the anger without hate and searches for purpose and redemption. His sentence structure is deceptively straightforward. It drips with allusion and music. In a few strokes, each character becomes a fully developed individual. I hadn't read this talented writer's work before and am in awe of his voice.
Some of the other reviewers have mentioned that a movie will be made of this. It will be a challenge to deliver what the book does. What happens to the band, Coyote Springs, at the hands of the New York record company in the book is not good and I wouldn't want Hollywood to do that to this fine work. On the other hand, Alexie is knowing, so I trust he has been careful in letting it go.
45 of 46 people found the following review helpful
on November 30, 2004
Reservation Blues, which won the American Book Award in 1995, is a touching look at modern life on the Spokane Indian Reservation. When legendary blues guitarist Robert Johnson shows up on the rez with his enchanted guitar and a dark secret, Thomas Builds-the-Fire begins a journey of self-discovery and painful realization that will forever change him and his friends. After the magical guitar ends up in his hands, Thomas forms Coyote Springs, a band made up of two seemingly unmotivated drunks Victor and Junior, and two Flathead Indian sisters, Checkers and Chess. The book chronicles the bands' humble beginnings playing at the local bar on the rez to a hopeful encounter with record executives in New York City. It is within this context that Alexie is able to confront serious issues facing the Indian community today with his own subtle sense of humor.
The straight forward plot is layered with metaphorical connections to a general Indian past, while each character is forced to confront haunting personal issues. For Thomas, it is the embarrassment of his alcoholic itinerant father. For Victor, it is the sexual abuse he faced at the hand of the reservation priest. For Checkers and Chess, it is a feeling of loneliness, the search for a "good Indian man," and being seen as outcasts on a reservation not their own. Ironically, their music is the only thing which gives them a feeling of power and inner strength, yet it is the opportunities provided by this music that alienate them from their own people.
Alexie believes the problems facing Indians today are the same faced by their ancestors 100 years ago. An obvious example is the names of the record executives for "Cavalry Records," Mr. Sheridan, Mr. Wright, and Mr. Armstrong; a direct link to the Generals who murdered their ancestors. Signing away your freedom in exchange for an empty promise is an idea which transcends the generations for Indians; the record contract and the peace treaty. Another problem Alexie confronts is the relationship between half-breeds and full-bloods. In his own original and comical way, Alexie uses a pick-up game of basketball which pits Thomas' father and the rez drunk, Leonard, against the half-breed Tribal police force. Insults fly, and the comedy that ensues is unforgettable.
Reservation Blues was a delight to read. Alexie is a talented writer whose gift for storytelling is enhanced by his social commentary and his humorous presentation. Few writers would be able to tackle such subject matter without the work falling into the category of a tragedy. Alexie's grasp of his people's sense of humor is unparalleled, and the jokes transcend racial and social lines. His ability to remain light-hearted when discussing suicide, alcohol, and rape is an impressive feat. It is not a surprise that he feels it is this very philosophy that gives Indians the ability to move forward and succeed. Focusing on the positive, while making light of the negative is a quality Alexie attributes to the survival of his culture. Overall, it is a story of accepting one's past in order to move forward. It is a story of hope, of survival, and of reality. Reservation Blues is more than a fictional work, it is a searing look at the political, social, and religious issues facing Indians today.
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on April 6, 2000
Unimaginably rich, funny, tragic, engrossing, intoxicating, layered, tasty and beautiful writing. It's thrilling to find a book that changes the way you read. Completely convincing, fully-realized characters throughout, from Thomas, Victor and Junior to General Sheridan, Robert Johnson and Big Mom. The settings and action are entirely credible and tangible, even though much of it takes place in songs, dreams, legends, visions, fantasy and magic. Alexie composes heart-rending, high-spirited, authentic blues and shows you exactly where they come from. At the same time, he dares or inspires you to reach this spot in oyur own soul. Every page is a revelation or a belly laugh, often both. This book more than fulfills the promise of Alexie's earlier poetry and short stories.
If all you know of Alexie's work is the movie "Smoke Signals" you should be aware that key characters in this book have the same names and back stories. However, the written characters are entirely different. Suspend the implanted images and get to know people who are far more interesting.
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on March 2, 1998
The blues, unlike any other music I've ever heard, has the astonishing ability to yank your heart out of your chest while making you laugh at the same time. In his first full-length novel, Alexie brings that same quality to his story about five Indians and a rock and roll dream.
It's been said that there are two stories in the world: one, someone sets out on a journey, and two, a stranger knocks on the door. In "Reservation Blues", a stranger arrives on the Spokane Indian Reservation at the end of a long journey. The stranger turns out to be the legendary bluesman Robert Johnson, who made a scant 29 recordings before dying of poison in 1938. In the novel, it turns out that Johnson faked his death in an attempt to escape the "Gentleman", an enigmatic figure that anyone familiar with the Robert Johnson mythos will recognize.
Johnson leaves his guitar in the back of storyteller Thomas Builds-the-Fire's van, which sends the plot rolling through themes of identity, alienation, tragedy and redemption. All of this, with a liberal sprinkling of the deft comic twist that is a hallmark of Alexie's style, and of the blues itself.
Being a musician, or any kind of artist, requires sacrifice--whether it's not getting enough sleep because you have to get up for your day job no matter how late you played the night before, or making a choice that results in losing something you care deeply about for the sake of your art. "Reservation Blues" shows how well Alexie understands this, and how even failure can be turned into success.
I first heard of this book in a review journal put out by a science fiction/fantasy bookstore, but Alexie integrates the fantastic elements of his story far more deftly than most writers of fantastic fiction can manage. Although the construction of the story is non-linear, Alexie never loses track of the threads of the tale, and the result is a great read that I've enjoyed over and over again.
24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on January 26, 2001
The characters Victor Joesph and Thomas Builds the Fire who first appeared in Alexie's "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven" are prominent in this novel, which serves as a sequel to the short story in which they first appeared. While the novel's beginning, with the arrival of black blues player Robert Johnson's arrival at the Spokane reservation, initially suggests a possible variation the novel quickly returns to the theme present in other Alexie works, albeit with different essential messages about the condition of American Indians today.
The story is written in the author's typical sardonic fashion, portraying ongoing hapless episodes confronting the protagonists, with the Indians reflecting on their experiences and fate in a self deprecating and defeatest fashion. However, Alexie offers a number of distinctive observations in this tale. Among them he notes how the suppression of American Indians is in part a function of how the predominant society has kept them divided. This is illustrated by descriptions of the petty tyranny of the tribal police and tribal council corrupted by their power on the reservation, narrow attitudes of territoriality taking predominance over group identity in distinctions between tribes, and how jealousy over the prospect of success helps thwart the advancement of tribal members and actually promotes alienation, failure, and self destruction.
Alexie's mordant humor comes to play in depicting the ongoing theft by the predominant culture of what little remains to American Indians, with Caucasians exploiting Native American culture and those who are "part" native American or those masquerading presuming to be representative. In a particularly ironic episode Indians visiting Manhattan are dismissed as surely being Puerto Rican, not Native American.
Touching, thought provoking and well written. It is woven with important messages about a people who are treated as if they are invisible.
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on January 5, 2000
Alexie's book about Coyote Springs all Indian band is contemporary and he does not lose any of the flavor of being "Indian" with his storytelling (so much like Thomas'). The humor, sadness, love, fame, groupies, experiences he depicts in this tale of the band members and Robert Johnson and how their lives become intertwined with the Spokane Indian Reservation is a masterpiece! I can't wait for the film and to find out who will play the characters! Keep writing, Sherman, because you have been making people like me laugh, cry and continue to be connected with other Indian people who have grown up on reservations to leave for a "better life" in the urban cities (S.F. Bay Area) but who always return "home" (Wind River Reservation, Wyoming).
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on September 25, 2005
Sherman Alexie's Reservation Blues begins with the mysterious re-appearance of the legendary blues singer Robert Johnson on the Spokane Indian Reservation where he meets Thomas Builds-the-Fire (one of many characters in this novel familiar to readers of Alexie's collection of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven).
Johnson, perhaps the most famous of all pre-World War II blues performers, recorded twenty-nine selections for Colombia Records before his death in 1938 from a glass of poisoned whiskey. But over the years Johnson's death has been shrouded in mystery and legend; even at the time many people wondered if the young musician, who'd bragged of obtaining his unique guitar prowess from selling his soul at a crossroads, hadn't been killed by a jealous girlfriend after all, but, perhaps by the devil come to collect on an old debt.
Johnson steps onto the reservation as if from out of nowhere and tells Thomas Builds-the-Fire he's looking for a woman who lives on a hill and might help him save his soul. Builds-the-Fire takes him to meet Big Mom, a powerful near-deity, believed to be at least several hundred years old, living on the top of Wellpoint Mountain.
Presented in a collage beautifully written vignettes, Alexie creates a series of of mostly humorous, sometimes heartwarming, yet usually disturbing stories of a defeated people struggling on a day-to day basis to maintain their identity and self respect.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on December 17, 2001
Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie depicted reservation life in a very realistic manner. The people that lived on the reservation were very poor and had nothing to look forward to besides receiving their next government check. They all lived in government built HUD houses and very few had jobs. The Indians were not treated as individuals. Most Indians were stuck in a rut with their alcoholism. This alcoholism could have been prevented if the Indians had more job opportunities. The Indians did not have anything besides what was presented to them on the reservation.
The character development for Reservation Blues was an important aspect in the book. In the beginning Junior was very dependent upon Victor, he was a follower, and he hid everything from Victor. By the end of the novel he was making his own choices and trying to live his own life. Thomas was the rock that everyone leaned on, he was the one that Victor and Junior used to beat up on. He emerged as a leader in the group as the novel went on.
I genuinely liked this book and found it was very different that I had suspected. I really enjoyed the way he used names that were important in history for characters. These characters showed the same tendencies ad the real people who shared their names. I was also surprised at the abrupt ending. I felt that the book did not resolve itself. It leaves you yearning for more and wondering, "What happens next?" However this book is definately one that I would recommend to anyone who was interested in Native Americans of today or any avid reader.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
This is one of the strongest, wittiest, most provocative and thought provoking novels I have ever read. It confirmed for me, even more, why I love, admire and have so much respect for Sherman Alexie as a writer and as a man, He portrays the universal human struggle with such gritty realism and unabashed honesty. It doesn't hurt that he also blends a dose of magical realism and wimsy into the mix.
This book introduces the endearing partnership of Victor Joseph, Thomas-Builds-the-Fire and Junior Polatkin to Alexie's reading audience. These are the same young man who continue their journey in "Tonto and Lone Ranger Fist Fight in Heaven" (a brilliant collection of his short stories that blend humor with pathos). We get to know the angry and broken Victor, the delightfully nerdy and off beat storyteller, Thomas and the unstable Junior as they form a band with the help of legendary bluesman, Robert Johnson. Johnson leaves a guitar in Thomas' van and the rest is history.
Perhaps, one ot the strongest qualties in this book is its universal accessiblity. We all laugh, cry and hurt together regardless of color, ethnicity, age or gender. These three young men (who happen to be Spokane Indian) are engaging, tender and richly illustrated. All of the supporting characters equally hold your attention as the reader.
The music in this novel permeates your brain and you can hear and feel the melody........You will never listen to blues (or native chants) the same way.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on July 25, 1998
Just as he had in THE LONE RANGER, Sherman Alexie, in RESERVATION BLUES, almost literally puts the reader in the world of the Native American Indian . . .the world of Victor, Junior, Thomas, and all others. You can almost feel the burden of poverty; the joy and pain in the rise and fall of Coyote Springs; and the blues of everyday struggle in life on a reservation and in America itself.
I am again moved by the emotions and tickled by the "black humor" that have comprised this book. Alexie is well-deserving of the acclaim he has received.